The Quarter-moon Phase of Ian Busmaran’s Life Ramnath Subramanian

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The Quarter-moon Phase
of Ian Busmaran’s Life
by Ramnath Subramanian

for my wife
Maria Theresa
who is the source of my inspiration
and is my guiding light

 

Ian’s wife died a week ago.

He lived in a hotel for the week, because he couldn’t go back to his home. He couldn’t go back to bed in a familiar and yet strange room that suddenly had become voiceless.

And now that she was buried, he needed to get away from the city itself.

He had told Amira that he might go to Las Vegas, and she sang Petula Clark’s “Downtown” for him in a feeble voice, and said, “If you are thinking of running away to Las Vegas, don’t go losing this home and all your money at the craps table.” She said that half-jokingly, half-seriously.

She knew he wouldn’t be proof against all indiscretions, but she also knew he wouldn’t do anything extravagantly foolish. There was nothing wrong with voicing a little concern, a word of caution.

“It won’t be the same without you there,” Ian said. “I doubt that I will be able to go to the craps table at all. All the noise — I don’t think I could handle it. I may just wander abound the city until my legs give out.”

That is precisely what he did. Strangely, he felt dead himself, except that he was still walking.

The people in the streets were all alive, but Amira was dead. He thought he had prepared for the finality of death, but he realized now that no such preparation was ever possible.

“I should have kissed her face many more times,” he said to himself. He felt an urge to go back to the cemetery, dig up the earth, open the casket and kiss her face once more.

What then? How could he hold the earth in his hand that he would have to put back on the ground.

No, he couldn’t go back to anything.

“Just walk. Keep on walking,” Ian told myself. “Maybe you will drop dead from exhaustion, and all your troubles will be over.”

ii

Outside The Rialto, a middle-aged lady bumped into Ian and spilled some beer on his shirt. She was profusely apologetic.

“I’m so, so sorry,” she said. She took some paper napkins out of her purse and started dabbing the front of his shirt.

“I’m so, so sorry,” she repeated.

“It’s all right,” Ian said. “It’ll dry soon enough. No great harm done.”

Ian looked at her face briefly, and saw in it a touch of sympathy, or commiseration, perhaps, and blurted out, “Listen, could we sit down somewhere and have a chat? I really need to talk to someone, really badly.”

Ian expected to be rejected outright, or else to be gently pushed aside. Instead, she said, “Well, I am going to The Rialto to play blackjack. Perhaps, you care to join me at the table for a few hands. And we can talk some, if you like.”

Ian nodded his assent.

As he walked toward the casino, Ian’s mind raced towards Venice. He and Amira had made three tips there, the last one just eight months ago.

“I don’t want to think about Venice. I don’t want to think about any of our trips to Europe or anywhere else,” Ian chided himself. He wished he could be like the sadhus who live in the foothills of the Himalayas, who sit cross-legged, close their eyes and clear their minds of all thought.

They were heading towards the section of the casino where all the blackjack tables wee located, next to the cashier’s cage.

“We haven’t introduced ourselves,” his companion said. “I am Jill.”

“I am Ian. That’s not quite my name, but all my friends call me Ian.”

“Nice to meet you,” said Jill, matter-of-factly. “Is it OK if we play at a $10 table. That’s all they seem to have. I prefer a $5 table, myself.”

“Me, too,” said Ian.

They sat down at a table with two other players who occupied the end chairs. The dealer liked to make small talk, and Ian found his garrulity most irritating. He looked at his cards and played mechanically.

“I like playing here the best,” Jill said. “Away from The Strip. What I like is that parking here is so much easier.”

Ian was listening, but also not listening. Against his wishes, his mind went back to Venice.

Amira had picked up a peculiar habit in Italy. She liked to visit the settings of her favorite movies and reenact some of the scenes from them.

“What scenes are you going to play out now that we are in Venice?” Ian had asked.

“Well, I’ve got to play Katherine Hepburn in Summertime. We’ll eat at the restaurant in St. Mark’s Square where Katherine waited to meet her love interest. Also, we’ll have to find the spot where Katherine fell into the canal. And we’ve got to find the curio shop, if it’s still there, where Katherine bought the vase. That would be a thrill, wouldn’t it, to find the shop?”

They did find the shop. It was still there, just as in the movie, — at the base of a little bridge that crossed a narrow section of the canal — but the plaster over the awning had come off exposing the bricks; and to the right of the sign for Ponte Barnaba, the small window was framed completely in rust.

“You should have doubled down on that hand.” Jill’s voice jarred him out of his reverie.

“That was stupid of me,” Ian said.

III

The drink lady came around, and Ian ordered a Baileys on Ice.

“I will have a Mimosa,” Jill said, and then turning to Ian added, “You said you wanted to talk, but you’ve been rather quiet.” There was more curiosity in her voice than reproach.

“I’m sorry,” Ian responded.

Ian felt trapped between silence and speech. Speech was uncomfortable, and silence choked his being.

Buddha had walked away from the palace, and Gandhi had learned to untie the bonds to belongings and attachments. He wished he had taken to their paths earlier in his life. But then he may not have met Amira. When we love we accept pain even though we don’t see their nexus right away.

Ian’s card was a two and the dealer’s hand showed a three.

“Usually I’ll take a card, but you tell me what to do. You’ve got  a bigger bet playing two hands.”

Jill asked him to stay, and Ian complied. The dealer ended up going over, and everyone was happy.

At this time, the fire alarm went off in the casino, and Ian took this opportunity to take a break from the game. “I’ll be right back,” he said, leaving his chips on the table.

He took a walk to the other side of the casino where the craps tables were located. As he walked, his mind went racing back to Venice once more.

It was Ian’s first trip to Italy. He had traveled to many countries in Europe __ excluding the Soviet-bloc countries, of course — when he was stationed in Germany with the U.S. Army, but Italy had somehow stayed outside his grasp. For Amira, it was her first overseas trip.

“After all these years, I am glad we get to go somewhere for a long stretch,” Amira had said.

Six weeks in Italy! It was marvelous. On the train from Rome to Naples, Amira had sung ‘Back to Sorrento’ in a voice loud enough to attract the attention of a few fellow passengers. She had a lovely voice. It pained him to think that the only place he could hear her sing now was on devices.

“The voice is gone,” he told himself. “She is gone.”

That’s when he saw the sign.

IV

making fools understand
(like wintry me) that not
all mattering of mind
equal one violet
— e.e. cummings

After the initial shock, Ian looked again, but the sign was gone.

At the center of the empty craps table to his right was a cardboard sign that announced a free lesson for beginners at 8 P.M. But the other sign next to it, of a similar size but with brighter lettering, that he could have sworn he saw had vanished.

Could he have imagined it? Was he going mad? “I must be tired,” Ian told himself. “That’s what lack of sleep will do to you. And, I gulped down the Baileys a little too fast.”

He walked back to the blackjack table, his mind in a whirl.

When he sat back down at the table, Jill pointed to a bunch of green chips she had accumulated, and said,” You missed out on a great run. The table was hot.”

Ian told Jill he would wait for a new shoe to start playing. “Listen,” he said, “has this ever happened to you. You look somewhere, you see something, and then you turn around and look again, and it’s gone?”

“Oh, many times,” Jill said.”Once I thought I saw a cat behind a storefront window, but there was no cat. Light can play tricks, you know. So can the mind.” Then, after a pause, she added, “Why, did you see something?”

“Yes,” said Ian. “You see the craps table way over there, at the end. No one is playing on it. I saw a cardboard sign sitting in the middle, but then when I looked again, it was gone.”

“Well, here’s a new shoe. Time for you to make some money.”

After a few hands that took his profits in the opposite direction, Ian said to Jill, “I think I will go try my hand at craps. Try to recover some of my losses. Care to join me?”

“You go right ahead. I will play a few more hands, and then I’ll come and join you.”

The craps tables were crowded. Ian wondered why they hadn’t opened the last table. There were a few spots at the tables where he could squeeze in, but he didn’t want people to crowd around him just as he didn’t want too many thoughts to crowd his mind. The shooter at the table across from him severed out. It was soon after that he heard the stickman call another seven out. The crowd thinned at the table.

Ian walked over to the table where he had seen the mystery sign. The cardboard announcing the free lesson was still there. He walked closer to the rim, and then he noticed a card on the felt. It was a postcard. How odd, he thought, for he recognized the facade of the building on the card.

The drink lady came by, cleaning up the ashtrays and collecting the empty bottles. Ian beckoned to her.

“I’ll be playing soon at that table. Would you bring me a Bailey’s on Ice?”

She nodded her head. “What’s the postcard doing there? Would you pick it up? You can have it, if you like.” And quickly picking up her pace, she moved to the bar.

“How odd,” Ian spoke to himself. “First the sign and now the postcard. Lack of sleep and tired eyes cannot produce a sign and a postcard. Not any postcard, but one that shoes the Gallerie dell’Accademia. I’m not mad. And I didn’t imagine anything. It’s all very strange, though. I don’t know what it all means.”

V

“If I stay here, there is a going in my staying,
and if I go there is a staying in my going.
Only love and death change all things.”
— “Sand and Foam,” Kahlil Gibran

The Gallerie dell’Accademia was as clear in his mind as yesterday. Ian remembered the day full of cold air and drizzle when Amira and he had crossed the wooden bridge to get to the museum’s doorstep.

At the highest point of the arch of the bridge, Amira had paused and said to Ian, “The day is rotten for the outdoors, but we must stop here and take a good look. Two months from now, we don’t want to be saying to ourselves that we should have taken another look at The Salute from this vantage point.”

He had so many memories of the Gallerie, but what was relevant now was “The Tempest.”

“This painting calls to me,” Amira had said. “That is me in the picture. Over there, that’s you. There’s just you and me in the world. In the distance, there is strife. Storm clouds and thunder. Dark skies. But here, all around us and above us, there is serenity. Peace. There will always be just you and me in the world, because we are not of this world. Do you believe me? Do you trust me”

Ian nodded his head and said, “Yes. Yes. Yes.” He had to be emphatic because Amira seemed to be possessed by some hidden power emanating from the canvas.

Just you and me in the world. That’s what she had said. For now and forever. But Amira was gone, and he was all alone.

The sign and the postcard, though, seemed to say something that did not belong to this world. It was as though a truth was being pointed to him that Amira saw in the painting on that drizzly day in Venice. He just didn’t know how to put his hand on it.

The drink lady brought him the Baileys.

“Thank you,” he said, giving the woman a dollar, and he made his way to the craps table that now had only three people playing.

“I need to calm my mind,” he told himself. He looked for Jill, but she wasn’t in sight.The shooter lined up his dice with three showing on top so as to make an arrow, and with a gentle wrist motion sent them in an arc so they barely touched the spiked end and fell back on the felt. “Hard eight. Hard eight,” called the stickman.

Ian threw a green chip on the table, said “six and eight,” and waited for the next roll. Just then Jill joined him at the table.

“Out, out, seven out,” shouted the stickman. He then added in a commiserating voice with a touch of sarcasm, “Something’s wrong. Something’s very wrong.”

It was Ian’s turn to roll.

“I’ve got some important information to share with you. You finish rolling, and then we’ll talk.”

Ian lined up the dice as the other man had, but with the fours showing on top. One die had six facing to the left, and the other five. He too released the dice in a gentle arc using mostly his wrist.

Boxcars showed up. Ian already had six and eight covered, and with the winning on his field bet, he covered the five, as well.

“Now,” said Ian to Jill, “I lose only if I seven out. I want to roll a bunch of field numbers.”

Suddenly, he was filled with an immense sadness. “Just you and me in this world,” Amira had said. But she was not there next to him. The whole world was next to him, pressing him painfully on all sides.

The phrase ‘just you and me’ hung in his mind like a leaf lifted up into the air by a troublesome wind, and then blown hither and thither.

“Do you think I can roll another field number?” Ian asked. He was talking to Amira, but Jill thought he was talking to her, and nodded her head.

Ian lined up the dice in the usual fashion, and sent it on a parabolic path, as he said, under his breath, “Just you and me.”

“Yo, eleven,” shouted the stickman.

VI

After about half an hour at the craps table, Ian decided to take a break, and asked if Jill would like to get a bite to eat.

They walked to a nearby store and got a sandwich and a drink, and then sat down near the fountain in front of The Rialto.

“What brings you to Las Vegas?” Ian asked. A fake gondolier in the fake canal was singing a fake Italian song in a somewhat tired voice. In front of St. Marks Square in Venice, gondolas were bobbing in the shimmering water. Ian could picture them. Vaporettos were moving in both directions ferrying tourists to various destinations.

What was he doing sitting here talking to this woman? He should be walking, walking, walking, till the night ended in a cipher of tiredness.

Jill noticed that Ian’s mind was distracted. “I am running away from a messy life,” Jill repeated herself.

“Me, I’m just running away. My wife died a week ago. I am trying to come to grips with a lot of things. I don’t think that will ever be possible. But I must try.”

“I am sorry to hear that. I knew something was troubling you deeply. I could sense it because my own life is such a mess. What do they say, misery loves company. I am not trying to minimize your pain.”

Ian looked at Jill and studied her face for the first time. Until now she had been just a voice.

With a broad forehead and hair pulled back, and a long nose, she had a slight severity to her face which was mitigated by a dimple on the chin. Her eyes were friendly. Some people have sharp, penetrating eyes. Hers were soft and receptive. A bit of brown hair fell onto her right shoulder bolstering friendliness.

“What kind of messy life are you running away from?” I an asked.

“My husband is part of The Resistance. At first, he was using our home for meetings and such like, but then people started bringing supplies into our home. Arms and food. And they started parking machinery in our back yard. Two days ago, someone tried to set our house on fire. That must have been the Loyalists. Anyhow, I told my husband I didn’t want to live in a state that was going to erupt into civil war any day. All he did was threaten me. He told me that he would kill me if I left him. Things were already bad between us. So, I just got in my car and drove away.”

“We’re not too far away from trouble here,” Ian added.

“Oh,” said Jill, “what I wanted to tell you about earlier is that the police in a town in Texas, allied with The Deplorables, have taken the mayor and city council members hostage. There is a curfew on, and the streets are empty except for the police. I saw that on the television on my way over here to join you.”

“Funny,” thought Ian. “but I am indifferent to the idea of conflicts. All flags cast their shadows on the ground. Right goes to wrong, and then back to right. Life goes to death, and then … is it possible to get life back? Can you take a loss on the chin, and smile again?”

“Will you be able to manage, here, all on your own?” Ian asked jill.

“I’ve been through a lot of rough patches in my life. I’ll get by.”

Resiliency. That’s what he lacked. It was not in his character.

VII

Standing on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, pointing to the road that ran along the bank of the Arno, Amira had said to Ian, “That’s where Dante met Beatrice. And his whole life was changed.”

“How do you know?” Ian asked.

“Because I was there,” Amira said.

Amira fancied she had lived through many phases of history. In fact, according to her, she and Ian had met at a well in an Indian village some three hundred years ago.

That evening, sitting at the Ristorante Pizzeria Il Bargello in the Piazza della Signoria, Amira wrote a poem on a napkin.

Ian carried some of Amira’s writings, along with a lock of her hair and her wedding ring, in his pocket. He pulled out the paper napkin and read the poem out loud, as though to an invisible audience. Jill listened.

And so unto the light,
your hand in mine,
till November and April
are stitched together.

Let us not fear.

Let bugle sound
your full, fine thoughts
against receding shadows;

and your smile smile
a flower of reason
upon every easting road.

Let spring spring
and rose bloom,

my most lovely,
my dear.

Ian stopped. Jill thought she saw a tear roll down, which he brushed away quickly.

“Always an optimist,” Ian said.

“And a wonderful writer. Very romantic,” said Jill.

“The only consolation I can have is if I knew I would see her again. I want to believe it, but my rational mind says such a thing is not possible.”

Immediately, a counter-voice spoke up inside Ian. “But you saw the sign, and then there was the postcard. Your rational mind is not worth much when it comes to matters you cannot understand.”

“Are you religious?” Jill asked.

“I believe in God,” Ian said. “But I don’t believe in heaven and hell. I don’t believe in judgment day, and God tells you where you’re going. I don’t think God has time for all that.”

Jill smiled. “You’re an odd sort of a believer. Do you have a picture of your wife with you. I’d like to see what she looks like.”

Ian took out a picture from his wallet and handed it to her. It was a picture of Amira putting her hand in the Mouth of Truth at the Santa Maria in Cosmedin Church. I have a video of her doing that on my phone. She liked to enact scenes from her favorite movies. You remember Hepburn in Roman Holiday? And that scene with Gregory Peck?”

“I’ve heard of the movie, but never saw it,” said Jill. She looked at the picture again, and added, “She’s a beautiful woman.” And, after a pause, “Shall we go back to the tables?”

Again, the question nagged Ian: “What am I doing here?”

He knew that he was as a man stumbling around in the dark, letting the clock tick away second after second, so that a tiny patch of light might show itself somewhere in the distance. And he decided that conversation, — though empty of soul — and the roll of dice were more his salvation than his solitude.

“Yes, let’s,” he said.

VIII

Wherever she is it is now
It is here where the apples are
Here in the stars
In the quick hour
— Archibald MacLeish, “Poem in Prose”

Ian was a ‘blackjack man’ until Amira taught him how to play craps. Craps had always intimidated him. It had too many moving parts. The action at the table always reminded him of confusion at a major intersection of roads when the lights were not working. People throwing chips around and shouting arcane words. As the shooter was getting ready to roll the dice, someone shouting, “C and E,” and someone shouting “five on the world” had made him walk away from the scene too many times.

However, once he got to know the game intimately, he and Amira had spent many a long hour strategizing on making money. The key was to minimize losses until someone got a long roll. Amira herself had held the dice once for 47 minutes. And a wild shooter who simply picked up the dice and flung them had kept rolling for more than an hour. She did roll sevens, but they all came at the right time on the ‘come-out roll.’

“You see,” Amira had said, “everything we do, we do to make a world that will not wash away. When you hold a pair of dice in your hands, you will always think of me.”

All that held meaning while she was there, but now that she was gone, the world did wash away, as faith had washed away for C.S. Lewis.

Amira said to him once,”Love is not an easy thing. Those who find loving easy don’t know what love is. And those who find loving hard, suffer as the saints do to touch a larger truth.”

It was Amira who had told him about C.S. Lewis. She told him many things. He often wondered how she came by all this knowledge. She never went to college, but she carried many books in her head. More so, she had picked all the rights flowers and the right fruits sashaying along in the gardens of knowledge.

Amira’s thoughts were always parabolic, and he missed being on the curve, on its broad sweep.

As Ian and Jill walked towards the casino, the bell atop the tower rang nine times. There were more people out and about in the streets, and the hustle-bustle bothered Ian.. He realized he was in an odd place. He desired stillness, but he needed distractions. He would have been happy out there in the vacuum of space, where waves could rise high and crash without a sound.

There were more people in the casino now, and the management had opened the last craps table. The sign announcing free lessons was gone.

When it was his turn to roll, Ian picked up the dice, but then he gave it to Jill. “You roll,” he said. A few voices grumbled at the switch. “She’s never rolled. She’s going to bring you luck,” he added, softening the dissent.

Jill’s first roll was a disaster. “Get it to the back wall,” the pit boss warned. She over-compensated on the second roll and sent both dice off the table. Slowly, Jill settled into a rhythm.

It was Jill’s eighth roll and Ian, — starting with six, eight, and the field — had all the numbers covered, including the hard numbers.

The people at the table had now warmed up to Jill.

A voice spoke in Ian’s ear. “There’s just you and me in the world.”

“Yes,” Ian said. “I’m just trying to walk past the cracks in the earth. The rain clouds and thunder are on this side of the picture. Our side. I am trying to push them away. Help me. Help me.”

IX

Ian was amazed at how many life events flashed before his eyes between each roll of the dice.

He saw Amira in front of the large window on the second floor of the Uffizi with a view of the Ponte Vecchio.

“Take a video of me, quickly, before the crowd gets here” Amira said. She then reenacted a scene from “Light in the Piazza.”

When they were standing in the room with Botticelli’s “Primavera” and “Birth of Venus,” Amira asked, “Every why people paint pictures?”

Ian put on a look that said “go ahead and tell me.”

Amira obliged, and said, “Because God told them to do it. They had no choice. Everything flows from above. The greatest paintings and sculptures are those that have God somewhere in them. Michelangelo knew he simply had to chip away at the marble to find the figures that God put in the stones. Our love is like that. It is destined. Therefore, it will last forever. Aren’t you glad I told you that?”

“I am, you lovely thing,” Ian said, and he kissed her on the cheek.

Amira took Ian’s hand, and dragging him away from the paintings in the room that were the cynosure of all eyes, said, “Now, let’s go look at something that nobody is looking at.”

Jill rolled a hard eight. “My thirteenth roll,” Jill said, proudly.  Ian had $20 on all the hard numbers. Jill had yet to throw a hard four..

Ian threw two red chips on the table and said, “Press my hard four, please.”

X

“Relax. Smile. Don’t take everything so seriously,” Amira said to him on numerous occasions when life’s miscalculations or missteps brought a frown to his brows. “If you enjoy what you’re doing, then that’s all that counts, and the trick in life is to try to enjoy most things you do. Get all your finances neatly organized, or wash your car every day of the week, if that’s what brings you joy. Otherwise, what does it matter. When the last wood calls, all these details will become picayune.”

Amira paused. “Picayune,” she said, stretching out the syllables. “I like that word. In fact, I like it a lot.”

Ian thought to himself, “If she saw me right now, she would probably scold me. Snap out of it, she’d say.”

He was trying, but it was not easy. The whole world seemed picayune.

The price of loving is to be prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life. He remembered that line well from George Orwell’s essay. Amira, though, had a way around this problem. At the Gallerie d’ellAccademia, she had told him in no uncertain terms that their lives together was stitched into eternity. And now he had received two signs — though the first one was stronger, if he had not imagined it — that shook his rational mind to consider other options. Was Amira trying to tell him that she was still present in things, though not in the same way?

“Supposing that was true,” Ian spoke to himself, “where was the consolation in it? I would rather be on the same side with her from where I can send out signs. I have no use for things of this world anymore”

XI

Between June’s rolls of a six and a 10, Ian thought about this. In October, in Norfolk, Amira and he had walked among hundreds of acorns shed by oak trees, and they had found butterflies hibernating on the inside of an upturned metal box. “There is so much beauty,” said Amira, “that it saddens me to even think that one day we will have to leave all this behind. But remember that there is another land more beautiful than this, and it shall be ours to walk in, one day. sp, this beauty goes on forever, and it never ends.”

“My life would be so much easier if I could embrace this religion of infinity and endlessness,” Ian said to himself. “My love, give me another sign so that I may pick up the map to this land, and walk there to you.”

xii

“The problem with craps,” said Ian, “is that you can be playing for hours and be fully caught up in the action with all the people around you, but still be at a loss for human interactions. Look at us. We’ve been playing for hours, and yet we’ve said very little of substance to each other. I don’t know anymore about you than when we started playing. A craps table is full of noise, yes, but because it pulls you in so completely, it becomes an antisocial game.”

Jill was about to say something, but the waiter brought the food, and she pushed her thought aside.

“I am starving,” she said. “Let’s take our time here. I’ve had enough gambling for a day.”

Ian thought that in just the stretch of a few weeks his life had gone from regular to surreal. He recognized that he was in a stretch of time where he was doing things without purpose and without meaning just to be doing something. The dice were as meaningless as a plate of salad or a bowl of soup, and conversation was just an empty knitting of time. However, he was thankful to Jill for her company, as a beggar might for the can in his hand that had a few coins in it.

“Yes, let’s enjoy our meal,” he said.

Jill was looking at Ian as someone who is trying to solve a puzzle. The introspection on Ian’s face and in his speech was obvious as he moved between conversation and silence, and she wondered what was behind the troubled man.

“You know,” she said, “you’re a puzzle to me. An interesting puzzle, but a puzzle all the same. Over dinner, maybe, I can put a few pieces together.”

Jill looked at Ian’s gaunt face, his tired eyes, and a forehead that was wide enough to be suited for thoughts, and wondered where his whole person was headed. “Nowhere but to an unknown place,” she told herself. “Just like me.”

“Tell me,” said Ian. “I know you’re running away from your husband and the militia, but where will you go? Not today or tomorrow, but, say, a month from now. The country is not safe for a young woman on her own. Why, it is not safe for a man, forget whether he is young or old.”

“I don’t know,” said Jill. “I really don’t know. For right now, this seems like a safe place.”

There was an awkward silence.

“You know the sign that you said you saw in the casino, on the empty craps table. Can I tell you something? Before I ran away from my life, I was sitting in a restaurant, — me alone and all by myself — thinking things over. At some point, I remember telling myself that I have to leave everything behind and go my own way. Yes, you have to do it, I told myself. And repeated that to myself a few times, for reassurance. And what would you know, the mailman came in to deliver something to the restaurant, and as he passed by my table on the way out, he looked me squarely in the eye, gave me a thumbs-up, and said to me, ‘Sounds like a good plan to me.’ I never saw the mailman before. He was a stranger, and yet he gave me a go-ahead for my plan. He then walked out the door, and I never saw him again. That was a sign, wasn’t it? My angel speaking to me. I’ve always believed I had an angel. I think my angle spoke to me through the mailman. Why would a man walk up to a stranger and say something that made no sense whatsoever on the surface. But what he said was the answer I was looking for. An affirmation.”

“Is that what gave you the courage to leave?” Ian asked.

“I think so. And now, tell me about your wife.”

Mario at the Museum by Ramnath Subramanian

At the Museum

Screen Shot 2019-11-12 at 6.37.12 PM

I: Little Street

Mario felt the ennui that comes
from too much of one’s own company,
too much of one’s own conversation;
it seemed all real conversation was ensconced
in rooms he no longer knew how to open;
it seemed all real people belonged
to a different geography of soul.

Mario visited the museum
because his solitude sought company—
not the company of people,
or places full of conversation,
but the unchallenging company of people
simply passing through
from room to room—
dancing reflections in the water.

From the museum window Mario looked at Little Street :
a street where time moved without marking history,
a street where anonymous women performed anonymous tasks
as if in a nunnery—

                and what about the absence of men, Mario thought,
men who put the bricks together, painted the windows green—
was it war in the land claimed them
or war with the queen?

The lady sitting at the door step, eyes on white wool,
what lies behind her quiet work and daily schedule,
what does she know about the dark, sinewy figures,
at the kitchen table, and their foul schemes?

My Love, look how the light shifts in the East,
from gold to charred black,
from Margarete to Shulamite.

And what is at peace
is the place between broken tiles,
a thought between two tragedies.

II: Room in New York, 1932

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In another room, in another continent,
a young woman dressed in red,
turned her face away from her discontent husband,
to sound a note on the piano
large as Hiroshima,
and the sudden drama in the quiet household
took friends by surprise.
They seemed the ideal couple, said one,
perfect in every respect,
and Mario thought harmony and tranquility are dark horses,
de Chirico landscapes, with ominous shapes
lurking in the pale.

In a roiling, shifting universe,
the rock will fall
and break the lake’s mirror.

If this be so, what about the futures, promises and contracts
we contemplate, thinking the sheen will hold?

No man steps into the river twice
holding on to the same philosophy;
and the river, it has no use
for any man’s industry.

III: White Square on White

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White on white.
Had someone seen God
in a quiet surrender of colors?

Is artlessness art,
innocence unsullied erudition—
is the picture that snow makes on snow
a long silence full of implications?

Mario watched a child
trail after her mother,
purpose and purposelessness wedded despite
the seeming disinterest of the other;
the child content
with the discovery of distractions,
the mother pushing aside distractions
to get to the root of the matter,
to arrive at a meaning of the picture
from her place behind the rope.
And Mario thought, the universe
tumbles and spins with a story
etched between silence and sound.

White on white:
does it signify an end,
or end significance?
Is white the color of speech
when speech won’t come,
when heaven-yellow
and breeze-blue
prove inadequate, untrue,
as it did to Rothko
when he took the blade to his forearm?

Across from the “Broken Obelisk”
inside the low building
the final colors for Rothko were
black, deep maroon and raw umber;
a wisp of sunshine reaching for
the tortured, departing hand
failed to make the end connection.

What is it that I seek, Mario asked himself.
Mario looked at the child still playful among the distractions
and thought about the songs of childhood that move with prism eyes,
the leap of continents accomplished with little exertion,
the white of God’s eyes revealed in play.

IV: On the Threshold of Liberty, 1937

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The matter of our looking, in the glass
or in the real world, matters not, Mario thought,
because the compass of our lives spins from one truth to the next,
and what comes to pass vexes our thoughts
unless we accept islands floating in the sky.
A young woman jumped off a bridge in Châtelet because
the slippage between life and what it ought to be
invited the cold waters of the river Sambre
to perform their ministry.

If only she could have seen
what the young boy saw at thirteen:
a room full of screens,
images of sky, fire, nude, facade,
susceptible any second
to be blows to smithereens.

So, shall we proceed cautiously, between the pictures,
Mario asked himself;
between the here and now,
shall we try to catch the light just so,
at just such and such an angle,
or shall we run around the corner
to a single delight,
even if it be perched in the mouth of the cannon?

And what if
the object we seek
turns out to be an invincible freak, a phantom
leading us on a chase through dark corridors, dark streets?

Ceci n’est pas une pipe, the artist warned.

There is truth in the matter of our looking, Mario thought,
and then perhaps, a larger truth
in the matter of our not looking.

Let us make poetry a ‘Feast of April’ in our classrooms

Let us make poetry a ‘Feast of April’ in our classrooms: Ramnath Subramanian

In El Paso, February fools nature into thinking that spring has arrived, so that by the time April rolls around, the birds, the flowers, and the butterflies are in the full stretch of their spring dance.

This is the time for poetry — for reading it, and writing it — and a teacher must use stratagems and his persuasive powers to draw students into the web of poetry, just as surely as April draws the hummingbirds to nectar.

Many people suffer from the notion that poetry is less substantive than prose, and more difficult to grasp, but nothing could be further from the truth.

It is true that poetry is not stretched out like prose in a continuum where all the connections are made clear.

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We enjoy a story knowing full well it is not our story: The characters move and think with the orchestrations of the author.

In sharp contrast, a poem has gaps and silences — ellipses, to quote Joyce Carol Oates — that must be filled in by the reader to complete the poem’s meaning.

This is because in poetry the language opens out to the reader, whereas in a short story or a novel the language closes in on the characters.

“What did the poet mean?” asks a student in my class.

“This is where you come in,” I reply. “The poet is not there to tell us, and so you must provide the answer yourself. In this way you become a part of the poem.”

By all rights, poetry should gain manyfold in popularity, for it is a highly democratic instrument of thought, pitching a capacious tent for its understanding.

It is also replete with freedoms, for we are not trapped by facts and reason; and half-knowledge will suffice — what Keats called “negative capability.”

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My students in sixth grade loved poetry.

Once they understood the use of metaphors in verse, they couldn’t have enough of them. Gone was clumsy and baggy speech. In came the flutes and the violins.

Of course, poetry demands precision of language suitable for prosody, but, where genius does not supply it, the skill may be acquired with time and practice.

I gave students a list of poems to memorize, if they wanted to engage in the process — for I figured that such freedom would draw more to the task than a teacher’s command.

I was not disappointed.

Many gave excellent recitations of Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 116” and Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!”

One boy — just to show off — even committed Frost’s “Mending Wall” to memory, and poured forth the words in front of his classmates with great elan and ostentation.

The difficulty with poetry exists until the difficulty goes away with the recognition that it is both a vibrant and a friendly medium.

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Poetry is also vastly engaging, because, where successful, it provides linguistic prompts that draw the reader into the picture, into the argument, or into the contemplation of events and thoughts.

Consider these lines:

“When I remember much / the weather in the city changes; / Because the wind remembers her name, / our conversation is exact and long.”

How wide is the berth here for speculation? How numerous are the invitations for engagement?

In trying to understand what the poet was thinking, we begin to understand ourselves. A treasure trove of our own memories opens up, and we understand the weather in “our own city.”

In our classrooms, let us make poetry a “Feast of April.”

And let the fare include all varieties of ordinary and exotic items fit for the palate of a king.

Ramnath Subramanian is a retired public-school teacher. He may be reached at marianramm@yahoo.com

Our Schools

OUR SCHOOLS
by Ramnath Subramanian

Our schools are bastardies,
blank slates clothed in satin,
where boys and girls with spongy brains
take all the garbage in;
education’s urchins.

The teacher is in, the teacher is out,
nothing gets in, nothing gets out;
and all that’s left to show
is a blackout of the mind: the rout,
the rout.

Can one adumbrate
how the country moves and meets
the challenge of the future?
With blunted pens, the balance-sheet
is a clear disaster.

Our schools sing of money;
it’s a constant refrain
of consultants and all the rest,
while the precious little brains
are traded in the bargain.

A Different Country

A Different Country
by Ramnath Subramanian

How all that is flown
flies out of reach
to teach us a song
that is new in the mouth

How all that is love
sits on a wing
and is winged to a country
that is full of doubt

The size of a smile
in the eye of the night
is small
though it can still entice

How all that is sown
sails out of sight
and the bells ring forth
with a loud surprise

The Songs of Love, Then and Now

THE SONGS OF LOVE, THEN AND NOW
by Ramnath Subramanian

In those days the eyes looked coyly,
the heart fluttered but did not show;
a sideways glance was a book of romance,
a simple gesture brought a glow.

The temple of desire was near,
but far, too far, for a touch or a kiss;
love rode on clouds like a magical flute
whose tune was tuned to connubial bliss.

Today the songs of love delight
in flashy flesh and ballyhoo,
t’s all too quick, and quickly done,
then lovers start on chapter two.

The Ink is Dry, the Die is Cast

THE INK IS DRY, THE DIE IS CAST
by Ramnath Subramanian

The ink that’s black on paper bleeds with lies,
and let none believe a word of it;
the news is noosed by propaganda, and dies
before a word can breathe or make explicit

how the serpent moves in circles dark
to take the world to a seething past,
where disarray dances in every bark,
and moral man is outcast.

Behold the lie as it upends the chamber lit
by every piece of honest toil,
and watch the knave put on a crown, most unfit
to rule, as he packs in the spoils.

The world sleeps, and sleeping brings out the rats;
the ink is dry, the hour is late, and the die is cast.